‘Death lends everything a metaphoric imperative’, AA Gill once wrote. Victoria Hannan has a knack for the evocative.
Marshmallow follows the intertwined grief of a group of friends after the death of one of the couple’s young sons. The story builds to the first anniversary of the death as each character deals with the aftershock of it in their own lives and relationships. It relies on atmosphere more than a solid plotline, which is Hannan’s great strength.
She draws metaphors from everything: plants, a kettle of boiling water, a loaf of sourdough, the night sky or yesterday’s cake. It reminds me of that writing exercise where you sketch an everyday scene; say, a visit to the supermarket. The first time you write as though you’ve just fallen in love. How do you describe the tins of tuna? The second time you write as though your mother’s just died. How does this affect the way you see the precariously balanced pile of apples?
Hannan explores this negative space around the grief enveloping a group of friends. We swoop in on each character in a series of snapshots as they navigate their interconnectedness and culpability in the death. We zoom right into each character’s interior and everything from their hopes and dreams to the most mundane personal admin required in 21st-century living, like remembering to bring a housewarming gift or trying to figure out how to label your mother-in-law on your phone contacts. The balance of the mundane with the deep strikes a realistic portrait of ordinary people dealing with an extraordinary situation.
It’s very much an Australian story, full of recognisable images, references, objects and places as the characters move through the pages vividly drawn, as though you’re watching a TV show. They struggle with relationships, careers, parents, in-laws and culture. The story unfolds gently like origami, bouncing into flashbacks that gradually tell the story of what happened that fateful day. Marshmallow has been compared to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, with both dealing with the slow psychological burn following a shocking event.
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In one of the final chapters, grief is described as ‘a group of people up a mountain. Except every one of them has broken bones so no one can help each other down.’ This gets at the essence of Marshmallow; a well-spun snapshot of the rippling effects of tragedy. In the hands of any other, it may not have worked but it’s a poignant and thoroughly moving read thanks to the artistry of Hannan.
Marshmallow, Victoria Hannan
Paperback: 320 pp
Publication: 31 August 2022